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Big Noise MIDI MaxPak

sequencing librarian, MIDI mixing and live control software for the PC

One package, five software programs - for the PC.

You thought MaxPak was a BR coffee cup. Wrong. It provides all-in MIDI control. Bob Walder spills the beans...

SeqWin main transport screen and score window

MIDI MaxPak is one of those software packages that appears to be excellent value for money - simply because there is so much of it. MaxPak actually consists of five (count 'em...) pieces of Windows-based software for IBM PC-compatible machines. Anyone familiar with the standard Windows interface will feel immediately at home with these programs, and anyone who has used Big Noise's professional sequencer program - Cadenza For Windows - will notice more than a few similarities.

On first firing up any of the programs you are briefly presented with a screen announcing the MIDI Director before the program itself is loaded. The Director is a MIDI management system for Windows which allows up to 16 MIDI programs to multitask and share multiple MIDI ports (installed in the ADDPORTS control panel or the Windows DRIVERS control panel) without any unhealthy competition. Unlike the approach taken by some other manufacturers where all the timing functions are built into the sequencer, the MIDI Director provides a consistent way of synchronising several MIDI programs using internal sync, MIDI Time Code, or Song Position Pointer-based methods. This would allow you to run, for instance, all five programs alongside each other and ensure that they are all kept perfectly in sync.

You can also run Cadenza For Windows under the same director. This would allow you to have your main song arrangements in Cadenza, for instance, but experiment with your drum tracks under SeqMax (the sequencer part of MaxPak), and have both synchronised together with no effort on your part.

Whilst on the subject of timing, it is worth noting that the manufacturers recommend you run Windows in standard mode when using MIDI programs (any MIDI programs, not just MaxPak). Having experienced the odd problem with SeqMax in enhanced mode I can only concur.

SeqWin main transport screen, song editor and conductor window (with tools)

SeqMax is a 64-track jobbie and has the distinction of being the only pattern-based Windows sequencer currently available. It has all the features you would expect in a professional software sequencer, including support for multiple MIDI ports, standard MIDI files, tape sync facilities, variable quantising, humanising, swing - and more.

Each track can be used in Linear, Loop, Pattern, Setup or Link modes. In Linear mode, a track plays from start to end and then stops; this is in contrast to Loop mode where tracks play over and over again until all other tracks are finished. Loop mode can also be used when recording, with each subsequent loop being added to the previous effort on the same track (overdubbed) or saved as a separate track. As you might imagine, this is an ideal way of rehearsing a part as it allows you to pick the best effort at a later time.

In Pattern mode, shorter passages of music are connected together to form an entire song. Patterns are stored separately from track data, so you still have all tracks available, and you can store individual patterns to disk - allowing you to build up a library of drum beats or other useful ideas. You can play any of 255 patterns together in any order, and no matter how many times you use each pattern in a song, the pattern data is held only once - thus conserving memory.

Unlike most other sequencers, which are either pattern-based or linear, SeqMax is quite happy for both pattern and linear tracks to coexist in the same song.

SeqWin main transport screen, track mixer and patterns editor

Finally, tracks in Setup mode store data to be sent to your MIDI devices before playback begins, while Link tracks are used in a similar way to Pattern tracks, and are provided only for compatibility with Cadenza For Windows.

SeqMax has a variety of features which make it easy to use, such as context-sensitive tool boxes - invoked with the right mouse button - for most edit functions. The Graphic Edit window consists of two 'panes' - one for a piano-roll-type note editor and the other for controller data. Each pane can be sized individually, and it is possible to open as many edit windows as needed, thus allowing you to edit several different types of controller data for the same track.

Other windows include the usual event list editor and song editor (giving an overview of all the tracks in a song); the conductor (from where you can specify the meter, key and tempo of a song measure by measure); track mixer (where you can alter volume, pan, etc. of each track in both record and playback modes); and the score window. The latter allows full note-by-note editing on the staff, as well as a score printing facility (with the ability to add lyrics, marking and symbols). Space prevents me from going into too much detail about the score editor - suffice to say it's actually better than some standalone packages I have seen.

SeqMax works well, and is a worthy successor to Cadenza. My only criticism is in the area of screen updating. Some windows (ie. the track mixer) need to be painfully re-drawn if they are temporarily overlaid with another window, and the timer display refuses to update itself when recording patterns, even though the recording process is working fine - this latter problem can be particularly unnerving.

Event editor and graphics editor (piano roll & velocity) with tools

With version 2 of MaxPak, the MixMax program is the one which has undergone the most radical metamorphosis - the FadeMax program of previous versions has now been removed, since all its functionality is now contained within MixMax. MixMax is a totally configurable simulation of an automated mixer. It will record and play back movements of its on-screen controls, as well as record and play back control changes from external MIDI devices. As I said, MixMax is configurable, and it is possible to set up and save various mixer layouts to disk. It can be set up with faders, potentiometers, buttons and LED simulations, and all controls are user-assignable with respect to the MIDI message, colour, channel number and range of values.

The most obvious uses of MixMax are to automate a mix using MIDI instruments or an external MIDI controllable mixer such as the Mackie 1604 with Otto, or even MIDI controlled lighting consoles. With the Snapshot feature, you can set up scenes for instant mix changes, lighting cues, etc. My Studiomaster Mixdown Gold has MIDI Controlled Muting fitted, and it was a simple matter to create a custom mixer layout with all the appropriate muting buttons. I could then record the mute settings at various parts of the song, and this would be replayed in perfect sync (under the MIDI director) with the SeqMax sequence. By assigning MIDI volume control to the MixMax faders (or the SeqMax track mixer window) you can almost do away with your mixer - almost! Unfortunately, MixMax suffers from the same painfully slow window redrawing problem as SeqMax's track mixer window. If this problem can be overcome, MixMax is a brilliant concept.

LibMax, the third member of the MaxPak quintet, is a very basic, very straightforward patch librarian which can be made to work with most keyboards and other MIDI devices currently available. Individual patches or entire banks can be retrieved from your instrument, stored to disk, and sent back to the instrument at a later date. LibMax knows how to communicate with instruments through special instructions stored in Instrument Profile files.

Many profiles are supplied as standard, but you would be wise to check that they work with your instrument before you buy. I tried LibMax with my Korg 01/W and found that the Get Patch option would not work, and that I was only able to get and save bank A, and not banks B or C - the problem still resides with Arbiter technical support as this goes to press. If you have the know-how (and the patience) to tackle your instrument's SysEx messages, it is possible to create your own profile files. If not, make sure your instrument is represented amongst the profiles supplied.

Creating a mixer on MixMax

JukeMax is a 256-track live performance sequence player that is optimised for playing back songs on stage. It allows you to assemble lists of JukeMax/Cadenza format songs (SeqMax can save JukeMax files) or Standard MIDI Files of type 1 or 0 and includes a load-ahead feature which ensures that there is always a song available to play, and you can assign a MIDI controller for advancing songs.

Oriented mainly towards playing songs back, JukeMax has very limited editing facilities. There are settings for looping songs, doing smooth segues between songs, transposing songs to new keys and even displaying lyrics whilst a song is playing - karaoke night will never be the same again!

The final member of the MaxPak team is a new recruit for version 2 called TapeMax. This is a program designed to control a tape recorder from your computing environment. One of the big problems with using computer-based sequencers and analogue tape recorders is that you end up using two sets of transport controls, when what you really want is to control the whole thing from your sequencer. TapeMax allows you to do this. It is organised as an onscreen tape transport control panel with all the usual transport controls, record enable buttons (for up to 32 tracks) and eight auto-locate buttons. TapeMax acts as a complete replacement for your tape deck controls, and if SeqMax is put into MTC sync mode (which can be done from within TapeMax) then both sequencer and tape deck can be controlled from the single TapeMax control panel.

All this sounds wonderful, but there was an initial problem. Although I have a Fostex R8 with an MTC-1 controller (one of the supported options, supposedly) I could not get it to work. As it turned out, the problem was at the Fostex end - early MTC-1 units were not able to recognise the MIDI Machine Control messages issued by TapeMax. Fostex agreed to upgrade my MTC-1 firmware free of charge (for which I am very grateful), and the resulting combination worked perfectly. Once again we are reminded of the old saying - caveat emptor (er...just run that past me again - Ed). If the TapeMax feature is important to you, make absolutely certain that it will work with your chosen hardware before you splash out on the software - you may not be as lucky as I was.

SeqWin main transport screen and score window SeqWin main transport screen, song editor and conductor window (with tools) SeqWin main transport screen, track mixer and patterns editor Event editor and graphics editor (piano roll & velocity) with tools Creating a mixer on MixMax Creating a mixer on MixMax

So, in the final analysis, how does MaxPak compare with other Windows-based sequencers reviewed previously in this august journal? Compared with its predecessor - Cadenza For Windows - MaxPak's SeqMax is superior in most respects. Since Big Noise obviously expect MaxPak and SeqMax to take over where Cadenza left off, there is little point in pursuing the comparison any further - suffice it to say that Cadenza users could well be tempted to upgrade.

A more difficult choice would be MaxPak versus Cakewalk Professional For Windows (though, this is at least £50 more - see review MT March '93). Although MaxPak is more than just a sequencer, Cakewalk does offer a SysEx Librarian (which did work with my 01/W), a play list feature (comparable to JukeMax) and a graphical fader window which is similar to MixMax, though not quite as sophisticated. Cakewalk also offers CAL, the built-in programming language which allows you to define your own custom commands, and has similar graphic editing facilities to SeqMax, including staff editing and printing.

Where Cakewalk really scores is in its polish as a Windows application. Screen re-draws are done very quickly and without disturbing any music which may currently be playing - SeqMax had an annoying habit of interrupting play for an instant when particularly complex screen updates were required (when following the score as a song is playing, for example) and even had the additional burden of a moving cursor following the score note by note as each was being played. This points to poor programming techniques, since Cakewalk suffered from neither of these problems. Big Noise may well try to imply that a more powerful machine is required, but it must be remembered that both packages were reviewed on the same 386 PC with 8Mb of RAM - the only conclusion that can be drawn, therefore, is that the screen updating in MaxPak requires some attention. In addition to this, I had the odd 'General Protection' fault with SeqMax, something which has never happened with Cakewalk since I started using it.

This apart, the choice between Cakewalk and MaxPak really comes down to personal preference. The one or two niggles I encountered with MaxPak were, I accept, peculiar to my system, and one was, as I've mentioned, rectified by an upgrade to my tape hardware. At present, MaxPak has a couple of advantages over Cakewalk in so far as the TapeMax feature and the more sophisticated fader window are concerned. Cakewalk, on the other hand, has a rather more polished feel to it. Try them both, if you can, before you buy.


Ease of use Logical, if a little slow
Originality Interesting approach to packaging software
Value for money Compares favourably to other PC programs
Star Quality Not (yet) quite up to maximum potential
Price MaxPak £233.83;
upgrade from version 1 to version 2; £58.75;
upgrade from Cadenza to MaxPak version 2: £175.08
More from Arbiter Pro MIDI, (Contact Details)

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Mark Of The Unicorn MIDI Express

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Short Cuts

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Feb 1994

Quality Control

Gear in this article:

Software: Sequencer/DAW > Big Noise Software > SeqMax

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PC Platform

Review by Bob Walder

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